Thursday, January 3, 2013

Answer: What's the connection between these two places?

The short answer is that the building on the left is the Vedanta building (the “Old Temple”) on Webster Street in San Francisco.  It’s owned by the Vedanta Hindu organization, which also owns an ashram site in the San Antonio Valley very near Lick Observatory (that building on the right).

Let me tell you why I asked this question…

First, what I said is true—I really was walking down the street and found this amazing place, then wondered what it was.  That was pretty simple.  A quick search by image found it (or, as I was walking down the street, a quick shot with my Android phone and the use of Google Goggles to identify it). 

But the general idea here is that there are often connections between things—in this case, between two buildings—and a sophisticated searcher often wants to figure out what those connections are. 

It’s a bit like being an investigative reporter running down a story.  They’ve got multiple people, places and things they’re trying to link together.  How do they find the common elements, the threads and links that tie everything together into a story?

In this case, you knew there was a connection because I told you there was.  The question for you is to figure out what that connection was.  Here’s what I did to find the connection… First, using your favorite image editing tool, take my composed picture and break it into two parts—the left and the right side.  Then…

 1. Use Search-by-Image to find that the picture on the left is the Vedanta building on Webster Street in San Francisco.  That’s not hard.  I poked around a little bit to read the history of the place, learning that it was built in 1904 by Swami Vivekananda, who founded the Vedanta society in California in 1900.  This place (now called the “Old Temple”) on Webster Street was purchased for $1,800 at a time when the neighborhood was still marked by empty sandlots, market gardens, and nursery operations.  Because it was on the western edge of the growing city, it was spared in the massive firestorm following the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of the rest of the city.  

Joseph A. Leonard was the architect and worked with the second leader of Vedanta, Swami Trigunathiandaji, on the design. The first two floors were completed in 1905. Leonard a large Edwardian structure with many Queen Anne-style touches.

Then, in 1907-08, Swami Trigunathiandaji directed the design of an exuberant third floor.  This is what caught my eye…  There are five hollow domes and graceful, lobed arches of the gallery on the upper floor. 

2.  Then to figure out the second picture, you can once again use Search-by-Image to find out that this is the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton.  Built in a Classical Revival style, was constructed between 1876 and 1887, with money from James Lick, a piano-maker and real-estate magnate in San Francisco. In 1887 Lick's body was buried under the future site of the main telescope as his memorial (better than the alternative he’d planned: a pyramid larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in downtown SF).

But now, what possible connections are there between the two? 

To find out, I started looking for combinations of ideas linking the two together.  I started with a few obvious combinations of key terms from each location (now that I know what they're called):  

   [ Vedanta San Francisco Mount Hamilton ]

   [ Vedanta Lick Observatory ]

And quickly found that they built an Ashram (also spelled “Ashrama”) out in the San Antonio Valley, “Shanti Ashram,” just below Mt. Hamilton.    

Here’s where I found out: the Ashram was built on 160 acres of land that was given to them by a devotee.  The land was around eighteen miles southeast of Mt. Hamilton, California, the site of Lick Observatory. 

While that’s good information, I wanted something a bit more precise for a location, so I did the obvious query: 

   [ shanti ashram ]

and found that the Santa Clara Valley Water district raingauge recorder has a web page with a rain gauge at the Ashram!  That page gave me the lat/long:   37.310, -121.470  

On Google Maps, I just dropped that lat/long in and then did a search for Mount Hamilton.  Plugging in the lat/long drops a green arrow in the map, while searching for the observatory shows up as a Google Map red drop pin.  In addition, you’ll see an purple address balloon for 42210 Upper San Antonio Valley Rd, Mt Hamilton, CA, which is the address of the Ashram.  You can zoom in a bit and actually find their “Meditation Shack,” which still stands (and is apparently the only permanent structure on the site). 

This might be enough of a connection, but the reporter in me was curious about other possible connections.  So I checked in Google Books, hoping to find out something more.  Sure enough, the query:

   [ Vedanta Lick Observatory ]

in Google Books leads to all kinds of discoveries, including a book called “Vedanta in the West: The Ramakrishan Movement in the UnitedStates” which points out (on pg. 58) that the swami assigned a student the “specific task of synchronizing all of the clocks [ in the Webster Street building ]with the Lick Observatory.” 

And, since it’s really the only road into the San Antonio Valley, people travelling to the Ashram must have certainly travelled past the Lick Observatory. 

Search Lesson:  When looking for the connection between two places / people / sites, you sometimes need to look for the points of contact between them, exploring the fringes of each concept, looking for the places where they intersect.  In this case, combining the two key terms (Vedanta and “Lick Observatory”) led pretty quickly to the Ashram, which is the link I was looking for. 

Search on!

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